Written by William H.A. Johnson.

Jack Ma, the colourful founder of the Chinese internet juggernaut, Alibaba, has often talked about the failure of the Chinese system to properly encourage innovation. In a recent speech he broke the problem down into the two Mandarin words that generally describe the educational process for children in China: jiaoyu. Jiao means to teach, referring to the act of teaching itself and pedagogy – things that we normally think of as part of a classroom setting. The second term, yu, is broader in scope and meaning. It describes the fostering of an individual’s character both in and out of the classroom.

Ma stated recently that, “We often say that America and Europe are more innovative than us, that China’s innovation is not good and that the education [jiaoyu] system is to blame. Actually, I think China’s jiao is fine. The problem is with the yu. In terms of jiao, China’s students test better than anyone in the world, but yu is about fostering culture and emotional IQ.” He goes on to state that because he did not attend one of the elite universities in China he was allowed to play and have fun rather than pressured to excel at Jiao and this helped him become more innovative. (Please see the TechinAsia source for the full story).

Is Jack Ma correct? Would having more time for fun in the Chinese educational system produce better and more creative technological entrepreneurs and innovators?

Fun and playful activities have often been touted as important for encouraging creativity and learning new skills for children. Play may also be beneficial for adults in stimulating continued brain activities and creativity. Hence the trend of software geared towards play and enhancing neuro-activities in adults. Furthermore, burned out children, like burned out employees, are counter-productive.

But the reality is that competition (and there is a lot of it here in China, not just in education – e.g., who gets into the best and most prestigious schools – but also in business, politics and for mere survival) drives out fun. Furthermore, unstructured fun may be just as counter-productive as being burned out.

I have always argued since my first papers touching on education in China and its effects on innovation that there should be a middle ground – a so-called middle ground for the middle kingdom. In America we have drifted towards too much creativity with a lack of rigour (yu over the jiao). In China, as Ma suggests, they have had the opposite issue. This is, of course, important if the system is to produce people that can be both creative and effective in producing new and useful innovations. That is, in both cultures, we need more jiaoyu.

It is important to make the distinction between the creation and usage of technologies, for example. Using and engineering existing technologies is a lot easier than dreaming them up, designing them and then engineering and manufacturing them into a reality.

As I compose this blog entry I am on my nth trip to China and everywhere I look I see people with their heads, singular and alone, buried in their laps, focused on the screens of ubiquitous cell phones. While this behaviour is rampant in the US too, it is pervasive in China. But as in the West, the question is, what do people do when they adopt such technologies and how is that affecting their other behaviours? Does the fact that one can use technologies mean that one can create them? Of course not. Then, what is the effect of such proliferation of technologies – particularly Information & Communications Technologies (ICTs)?

The truth is that technology opens up the world to its users but also can constrain them. Try to load Skype on a Windows-based machine without having to set up a Microsoft account first! That will show you the power of Big Brother. As such, it should not be a surprise that China has chosen to focus on and embrace ICTs. Five of the ten most innovative companies in China on Fast Company’s list for 2014 were in the ICT industry. Still, in general home-grown initiatives in China have failed, such as the TD-SCDMA standard – primarily because of their controlling and constraining nature. The Great Chinese Firewall (Zhongguo Weida Fanghuoqiang) remains a high achievement in Chinese ICT but it still utilises foreign innovation. Most of the original technologies behind the ICT businesses and initiatives in China are foreign.

My forthcoming book entitled Innovation in China: The Tail of the Dragon uses a number of lenses including the educational one to examine the propensity towards innovation as a process in China. Despite its recent efforts, the Chinese system is still plagued with misrepresented intentions. For example, while patenting has risen dramatically in recent years in response to the government’s Medium to Long-term Plan (MLP, 2010 – 2020), the value of the patents applied for and granted, have not. That’s not to say that China has not successfully embraced the adoption of technologies and the re-engineering of them. You can’t help but see the proliferation of technologies in China today. But the fact that foreign brands are still the most valued is indicative of the remaining value of innovations from the West versus China. China’s jiao is a success story but it has only been the first act. The question that remains, and in which my research interests have always been, is whether the system can embrace the part of yu of which Jack Ma alludes. That remains to be seen in the second act as we approach the year 2020 and the culmination of the MLP.

Dr. William H.A. Johnson is Associate Professor of Management at the Pennsylvania State University- Erie Campus. Image Credit: CC by Beryl Chan/Flickr.